Containment by Jessica Karbowiak

At nineteen years old, I become confused in my body and have to leave college. I walk in padded slippers and ratty bathrobe down the front hall of my childhood home. I avoid my mother and father, and my younger brother visiting from college who seems to be avoiding me, too.

I work hard to control myself, my thoughts, my face, as I shuffle slipper in front of slipper, reach the dining room- turned- recuperation room, slide the glass doors roughly open, enter, and close them. There is little besides my old black sleigh bed brought in for the occasion, and I push my body onto it, crouch in a ball, and touch my stomach with both hands until sleep comes.

When I wake, confusion takes over. This becomes the new- normal, things and thoughts moving over-fast so it is hard for meaning-making to catch up. Weekday and Weekend; Day and Night. What Counts and What Doesn’t. Today is a Friday I know, I have been told by my mother several times. My mother, who paces the kitchen nights, adorned in her own ratty robe and slippers, paces there in the room next to mine. I cannot help but listen, eyes trained on the ceiling, and hands cupped over ears, counting my breaths until she stops.

I know this is Friday because tomorrow is Saturday, my appointment at the clinic, the beginning of ending this confusion. I wish for the rest of the afternoon and night to pass quickly, even though it’s maybe wrong to wish this, maybe I am callous for rushing this ending, but really endings are sometimes beginnings, depending where you start from. At the time, I’m okay with the rush, the hot welling-up-in-throat feeling to get things over with, move beyond them into something, anything else. I’m okay with possibly being wrong because already I’ve been wrong in big ways, god knows.

When I leave my bed, it is only to use the bathroom or sit at the family computer to play solitaire. I sit for hours staring at the movement of cards, line upon line, ordered. My sick pit of stomach feels over-empty and over-full in the span of a few minutes, so I shove saltine after saltine into my mouth to stave off the morning nausea, letting the crumbs build up on the front of my robe.

There is too much noise in the house on the Friday before the Saturday I have my procedure. The click of the computer mouse, the crinkle of the plastic cracker wrapper, the thud of the front door, and heavy footsteps up the hall and into the kitchen as my father brings plastic bags filled with items from the list to my mother waiting there: vitamins, thick cotton gauze strips, new pillows, a heating pad. I shuffle unblinking into my parents’ bedroom, shove my right hand into the back of my father’s nightstand, grab a handful of his construction earplugs—individually wrapped in neat plastic squares—and stuff a pair into place, the spongy Day-Glo orange material fitting to the shape of my ear canal. Instant relief. I can barely hear the telephone ringing, the argument between my father and mother in fraught whispers in the kitchen, as I shuffle back to my bedroom and close the door on the sound.

I lived in an almost silent world until I was three years old. My mother noticed the way I concentrated on her lips when she spoke, how I did not answer her calls when my back was turned. She took me to several doctors; some called me stubborn, others just slow. Still, she was not convinced.

I see her, dark hair and eyes, arms wrapped tight around her slender body watching me. Her first call shrill and long, her head bent to the side and waiting as I keep my back to her, sitting cross-legged and playing on the living room floor. She steals closer a step, braces herself and yells out louder now, and a wisp of hair escapes her messy morning ponytail.

Two steps closer, her wailing cry and arms at her sides, then moving in front of her body, hands slapping loud and louder together, slapping until they ache, and she presses them to the denim at her sides. I move my body to the side to reposition—there is hope there—but then I settle without looking back.

Tears come then for my silent experience. My young mother standing in jeans and t-shirt behind me as I lift block after colored block up and into some pyramidal shape of my own design, until I somehow feel her sadness, her presence, turn away from the peace and hush to smile at her.

Time jumbles and it is Saturday. I perch on the tippy-tip edge of a cold hard chair in the clinic’s waiting room. I read blurry-eyed the mandatory paperwork, walk to the front desk, and wobble my signature out on line’s edge in tiny script. I follow a no-name woman into a small dressing area where I don a cloth gown open from ass to elbow, feel foolish at how I notice the soft gush of air tickling skin, wish for someone beside me so I can make a dirty joke to push through this moment. Instead, I walk flat-footed across the tiled floor, follow this no-name woman between swinging doors, onto table, feet in stirrups, eyes closed. The woman asks me something but all I hear is static, too loud, and I swallow down the desire to fling myself out of the curtained third-story window behind me, to feel the hard crunch of foundation, its solidity, pressing into my body. The woman says something else, and I bite down on my lip. I’ve learned to ignore words, learned it’s dangerous lately to speak, to think, to write anything, anything at all.

It is at least ten minutes before the doctor enters. He is fat, very fat, and his glasses are slightly askew. He looks unkempt, and there are several dark-colored stains on the front of his gown. I shut my eyes, feel my legs open wide, so wide that when the panic comes, I think of how exposed I am and want to laugh out loud, maybe snort a little, though this is inappropriate.

When I look again, there is a light-eyed anesthesiologist beside me. He touches my hand and speaks in soft tones. As I count down from ten to nine to eight, there is only blackness and the sound of his kindness to guide me.

At four years old, I lay on a table in the Ear, Nose and Throat clinic with my mother waiting for the doctor. He would perform a long-sounding procedure with a surgical name I could not pronounce, though really it amounted to putting tubes into my ears. He showed us the pictures, three-dimensional shots of the tiny cylinders that would pierce my ear drums to allow air into the middle ears. It was fairly common, he assured my mother, speaking slowly so my eyes could follow the movement of his lips, though I didn’t understand anything he said, only the gentleness in how he treated us.

It was only a few months after the tubes were inserted that I began to hear a low whistle in my right ear, a constant whir and hum that never subsided. At five, I rode the kindergarten bus for the first time, cried with my head pressed into the dark-green seat in front of me, fingers shoved into my ears as noise invaded, over-loud; the chatter of school kids and the bustle of the bus itself, the screech and wail of overused brakes, and the slight cough of the bus driver. I begged my mother to drive me to school from then on, and she did. We left the radio off and drove in silence.

My father started buying the spongy orange earplugs for work, gave me a few pairs, and I carried them with me everywhere. I tore open the little plastic squares when the blare of life got to be too much, which was often. At ten, I developed severe migraines when there was too much background noise. I took to wearing earplugs at recess to dull the pain—still using the garish construction kind instead of the flesh-colored ones available in the store—because they blocked out more sound. The clamor of other people assaulted my ears, tingled up and through my ear drums, pierced with now-discarded tubes and admitting air.

The summer I was ten years old, I began helping my mother in her garden. It was quiet, just the two of us, kneeling in throwaway jeans and cupping gloved fingers around interloper weeds. We raked up leftover leaves from Fall, all curled and blackened edges, lifted piles of garden debris into a black pail, overflowing.

My mother dropped and covered seeds, watering slightly, so slightly it was almost like not-watering. A few drops. I heard the heaviness of my father’s work boots coming down the back stairs, lifting the pail full of our labor with one strong arm, moving to the side and front of the house without a word.

I collected the cucumbers for pickling, twisted them off the vine with one sharp tug, and dropped them one after another into a small tan basket. My mother’s body bent down into an L shape to reach the ground, and she wiped sweat from her brow with dirtied glove and left bits of soil and leaf there. She rubbed her hands vigorously between the seeding of different vegetables; they cramped and ached with the effort. I helped, but mostly I watched, leaned against one of the wire garden rails in my almost too-tight jeans, neon earplugs in place so there was the barely-there sound of singing birds, a faint lawnmower, and the feel of sun stream warming my bare arms.

After showers and fresh clothes, we stood together at the kitchen sink, rinsing big glass jars brought in from the garage, letting the soap and water swirl in and out, the dust and faint pickling smell from last year removed. My mother showed me how to pickle, though I never paid attention, don’t remember anything really except the quiet talk, the way her knotted, strong fingers cut cloves of garlic quick and light, how I would lift my wide brown fingers to my tearing eyes and marvel at her work. I knew my mother didn’t really expect me to help. My real job came after, shutting tight the lids and placing the full jars in the refrigerator with a grin.

When I wake in the clinic’s recovery room, stark white linen chafes my skin. My eyes well up like a child’s, perhaps completing my transformation from wronged woman to ravaged thing — an aside, a guilty person — staring up at the fluorescent ceiling light.

I notice the flimsy brown knapsack beside my bed, the one I brought with me that holds my wallet, an extra pair of underwear, and sweatpants. I feel over-tired and desperate. There is an overpowering noise coming from somewhere and my eyes seek out someone to beg for quiet.

A nurse stands by my bedside, asks me how I am feeling, but all I hear is static, the noise of her, and I wish for a pair of my father’s earplugs or the stillness of my mother’s garden. I can see the pickling jars stacked in the garage calling for me I should have taken one with me, washed it off with the outside hose, the one with the broken nozzle and hardly any pressure. I should have stuffed the lidded jar into my old knapsack, settled it among the soft of the clothing there.

I see the mouth of the nurse still moving, and I try to reach her across the static interference.

Do you, is there some way that I can keep it?

An uncomprehending look. Puzzled eyes.

What do you need, hon? What is it you want?

I know this sounds crazy and I swear I’m not crazy but can I take it home?

Take what home? The gown?
No, I mean take it home. What the doctor took. I think I’d like to take it home.

I try to explain how this is not a problem, how it is not that weird really; I have my own jar, my own jars for this. This makes sense in the moment though the nurse gives me a concerned look and nods for another nurse as I cup my hands to my ears at the racket because I am not alone here. I notice there are other women in this room, sick and getting-sick women. We are laid out in two parallel rows, five beds on each side, and the sounds of coughing and vomiting push past the static. More pills, light and fitful sleep, and when I wake again, it is hard to breathe so I have to tighten my whole body, focus one-two-three on my breaths. For a while, this becomes the important thing.

I stare at the two rows of beds lining the room. They make me think of vegetable rows in my mother’s garden as I wait for the doctor’s permission to leave, think of my mother idling her car in the parking lot, waiting.

Later, when the cramps come, I am covered with a homemade quilt in my recuperation bedroom. Not plural really, but a single elongated cramp wracking my body so who I am and what my body is capable of no longer seem real or trustworthy. The cramping finds me unprepared—even though I was told about the possibility of this—so when I hear the grunting and gasping of an animal it takes me a while to connect these noises to me.

The sound of me is loud and long, loud enough to bring my father from the kitchen where he sits nursing a cup of coffee, to stand outside my bedroom door. I see his shadow, sense his hesitation to enter, to offer me something because whatever he has to offer cannot help, not really, and somehow we both know this.

I yell for my mother though the noise hurts my own ears, scream her name in guttural and strangled tones until my father ends up sliding open one of the doors in fear. I ignore his presence, his maybe-shame at my shame, and yell out I’m fine I’m fine it’s gone now it’s all over, and I wish for my mother so hard it is almost the only thing that is me amid this new no-growth and pain. I close my eyes, see my mother kneeling amid garden’s growth, though it is winter, February.

I see her calloused and thick fingers, no manicure there, wish for those fingers to rub my forehead, my face and shoulder, the move and rub of a knowing mother keeping watch at my bedside like she kept watch over her garden, thumbing out pests and nursing life.

My voice is hoarse now from the calling, my father’s face registers shock, and I feel my own need contorting my face. I am still calling, and she is here, finally here, she has come home from the pharmacy with my pain prescription, drops all to the floor and lies down beside me on the bed, rubbing the no-growth, the confusion, and the pain away. She tends me as my father slides the glass doors closed and retreats to the kitchen, and the only sound now is the soft whisper of my mother’s voice and the gentle scratch of her skin on my skin, and I am no longer a ravaged thing, a confused and guilty thing, but a living thing, a trying-to-be-alive-again thing, and I let the quiet of her hands do this work. I let her so I can rest.



Jessica Karbowiak grew up and currently resides on Long Island, New York. She is a graduate of The University of Texas MA program and Penn State’s MFA program. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Chaffey Review, Arcadia MagazineOrion Headless, Canary Journal, Write From Wrong Magazine, and Blood Orange Review. Her first collection of stories and essays, These Things I Know, will be published by Pink Fish Press in mid-2012.